• Entrepreneurship has taken a leading role in fighting COVID-19.
  • Collaboration and cooperation are proving to be key in this effort.
  • We should take this opportunity to create harmony between individual enterprise and the collective good.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the very nature of our existence. An analysis of Google searches for the phrase “social distancing” over the past 90 days shows how a phrase that had hardly any traction online till the end of February was topping the charts by the third week of March. Today, we are asked to maintain social distance from our fellow humans in order to survive. This strikes at the very heart of the human story and our way of life as a species, because to interact socially, to collectively build societies that become nations and civilisations, and to live in 'collective purpose' is at the core of being human.

The 21st century has seen an exceptional rise in individualist consumerism. There is a greater demand for individual expression in the socio-political arena as well. The digital age and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have created platforms that enable individual contribution at a large scale. Business models, political reforms and even social change are all designed in a manner in which the individual is at the centre of the experience and the outcome.

But it has also thrown open opportunities for individuals to work with others like never before. It has given great impetus to convergence, collaboration and co-creation. It has given us the idea that many can act as one and - that we can do so with ease and speed. At present, we face a challenging virus that has shaken our way of life. To overcome it we need entrepreneurship at the societal and global scales working in collaboration for a collective purpose.

All entrepreneurs are, at heart, problem solvers. They bring a product or service to the market to meet a need or a gap. In the fight against COVID-19, entrepreneurship has taken a lead role in developing contact tracing apps, repurposing factories to manufacture ventilators and PPE, creating makeshift hospitals, and accelerating the search for a vaccine, to name a few examples. But do we need a virus to catalyse harmony between enterprise and societal good? After all, it is human to have collective purpose. Within the new social distancing norms, people have learnt to work, exercise, study, celebrate weddings, attend funeral services, act in films, conduct concerts and do much more using collaborative digital platforms. The question, therefore, is not whether we should work in collective purpose at all - but how do we do it.

For decades, individual enterprise has forged ahead - in many cases at a societal cost. Profits have often had a greater say than quality of life. The damaging impact of certain business models on the planet and its natural systems is one such example. But maybe this pandemic has given us the opportunity to repurpose entrepreneurship itself. We can now explore an entrepreneurial way of life where enterprises can help communities across the globe solve socio-economic problems while being true to market forces. Maybe it is time for individual enterprise and collective purpose to work in harmony.

The tools, frameworks and models for such an endeavour are already with us - and we will doubtless discover many more as we move forward. In 2008, for example, the Harvard Business Review published an article about how companies can expand their market, capacity and growth horizons by leveraging their users' contributions. We already have the tools, digital and otherwise, that make working with collective purpose possible for people from all walks of life.

But there are systemic interventions needed for this new way of entrepreneurship to take root and grow. Entrepreneurs are impacted by the terms of finance to which they have access - terms which, today, often have a very small percentage of criteria for societal good. Governments across the world have incentivised businesses to innovate in the fight against COVID-19, and the same needs to be done for enterprises that are solving societal issues.

All entrepreneurship can be socially impactful if governments can develop policy frameworks for creating a virtuous cycle of shared value. All investments can have societal impact if we create ways for markets to reward with price and preference those products and services that work in harmony with collective purpose. Most entrepreneurship education continues to be profit-focused, however - and balancing profit with the collective good is not a skill either widely taught or sought. Often such a balance means navigating some difficult choices and mediating through conflicting interests - and such skillsets don’t feature in most entrepreneurship pedagogy.

Systemic shifts require collective intent - something that is still scarce in business communities across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly changed that, and has created the necessary conditions for collective intent. The human race is at a crossroads, and the choices we make now will define future generations and their way of life. Therefore, it is imperative to think about how can we create local and global ecosystems that support models of individual enterprise acting in harmony with collective purpose. How can we move towards a world order where entrepreneurship is in harmony with greater societal good? Governments, businesses, civil society, academia, media, innovators, philanthropists and developmental institutions must all now collaborate to co-create a roadmap for 'entrepreneurship with collective purpose'.